Binging on foreign foodIt is worrying that our cereal import bill is higher than the farm budget of Rs40 billion
There appears to be no end in sight to the dangerous trend of excessive reliance on the import of agricultural products. Figures from the Department of Customs show that the cereal import bill amounted to Rs41.32 billion in 2016-17, up from Rs39 billion in the previous year. The import bill for the first 11 months of the fiscal yearhit a new record high, thanks to soaring demand for fine rice, and maize used as animal feed.
In fact, the cereal import bill is higher than the farm budget of Rs40.14 billion allocated for the next fiscal year. This is an unfortunate and worrisome trend for Nepal, which was an exporter of agro goods until the 1980s.
According to the Department of Customs, Nepal imported farm products worth Rs196 billion in the last fiscal year, up 11.36 percent year-on-year, setting off concern that the country’s dependence on imported food was ballooning out of control. The share of agro products in the last fiscal year’s total import bill of Rs984.06 billion has swelled to 20 percent.
The current trend does not bode well for the country’s economy, given that the contribution of agriculture to the gross domestic product stands at 29 percent and close to 70 percent of its population depends on agriculture for livelihood. Nepal’s agriculture growth rate has averaged 2.9 percent in the last decade. A swelling middle class, expanding population and stagnant local agricultural production are driving up Nepal’s food imports. To add to it, a rapidly growing migratory trend, particularly of working age population going abroad for employment, has left the farm sector shorthanded.
The ailing agriculture sector should ring alarm bells and imports are unlikely to drop anytime soon. The current trend—fertile farmlands in the Tarai region being rapidly buriedunder concrete for uncontrolled development, too has stymied the growth of agriculture. Other factors include non-mechanised farming, regular lack of fertiliser, overdependence on rainwater and shortage of labour, among others. This needs urgent intervention.
The government has for years been saying that it will make the country self-sufficient in food, but this has proved elusive. Farm mechanisation and modernisation could help increase agricultural productivity. Irrigation facilities need to be expanded and innovation should be encouragedto produce enough food, not only to feed ourselves, but also to export like the country used to do in the past. Without the agriculture sector performing better, Nepal’s plan to graduate to a middle-income country by 2030 will remain a non-starter.